More names surface as contenders for Iowa secretary of agriculture

Governor Kim Reynolds is considering at least four Republican farmers–all current or former state lawmakers– to replace Bill Northey as Iowa secretary of agriculture, James Q. Lynch reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette today. In addition to State Representative Pat Grassley and former State Representative Annette Sweeney, whom Bleeding Heartland discussed here, State Senators Dan Zumbach and Tim Kapucian are in the running, according to Lynch’s story.

“I’ve had a couple conversations with governor about it,” Zumbach, 56, said Wednesday between meetings on housing development and soybean production. “I’d certainly be available and honored” if appointed to fill out Northey’s term that runs through early 2019. The position will be on the statewide ballot in 2018.

Zumbach, whose “heart, soul and passion has always been in agriculture,” said serving as state secretary of agriculture would be an “opportunity to share my lifetime of experience to guide Iowa agriculture in a good direction.”

Zumbach chairs the Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee, having previously served as its ranking Republican. Kapucian, who has long served on the Senate Agriculture committee, “could not immediately be reached for comment” by Lynch. As the top Republican on the chamber’s Transportation Committee, he was a strong voice for raising the gasoline tax in order to fund better maintenance of farm-to-market roads. Grassley and Sweeney are both former leaders of the Iowa House Agriculture Committee and confirmed their interest in Northey’s job to Lynch.

Iowa law gives Reynolds the authority to fill Northey’s current position after he resigns upon confirmation to a senior U.S. Department of Agriculture post. The person she selects will be heavily favored–if challenged at all–in next year’s GOP primary for secretary of agriculture.

Choosing a relatively low-profile lawmaker like Zumbach or Kapucian would allow the governor to avoid taking sides between Republican power-broker Bruce Rastetter (a major donor to Reynolds and decades-long friend of Sweeney’s) and Senator Chuck Grassley (Pat Grassley’s grandfather). The downside for Reynolds: that path could anger both Rastetter and the elder Grassley.

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Bill Northey's heading to the USDA. Who will take his place?

President Donald Trump has officially nominated Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey to a senior position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In another sign of this administration’s lack of basic competence, the USDA’s news release says Northey will be Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, while the statement from the White House says he will be Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. (See excerpts enclosed below, along with Northey’s official biography.)

Either way, U.S. Senate confirmation should be smooth sailing, clearing a path for Governor Kim Reynolds to appoint a new secretary of agriculture later this year or in early 2018. The appointee would presumably be a prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination next spring.

This thread is for any speculation about successors to Northey. A few months ago, I thought State Representative Pat Grassley was a lock for the job. He was seen as a likely candidate for secretary of agriculture in 2014 or 2018, had Northey run for higher office. His grandfather, Senator Chuck Grassley, is co-chairing the Reynolds campaign for governor.

And yet: ever since Pat Grassley tweeted last week that he was “not convinced” a state tax incentives package worth $400,000 per long-term job created by Apple was “good value for Iowa taxpayers,” I’ve been wondering whether he and the governor had a falling out. Perhaps word reached him that Reynolds is leaning toward someone else for secretary of agriculture. The governor has been talking up the Apple deal as a major accomplishment. Her chief of staff, Jake Ketzner, is not known for showing tolerance toward Republicans who criticize or question his boss.

Former State Representative Annette Sweeney could be a contender. She’s executive director of the Iowa Angus Association, having previously headed a public policy group called Iowa Agri-Women. Before that, she served as Iowa House Agriculture Committee chair and floor-managed the country’s first “Ag Gag” bill.

The political map drawn up after the 2010 census put Sweeney and Pat Grassley in the same legislative district, and she lost a tough, expensive 2012 primary widely viewed as a proxy war between Bruce Rastetter and Senator Grassley. The two Iowa Republican powerhouses were on opposite sides again during last year’s GOP primary in the fourth Congressional district.

Sweeney is a childhood friend of Rastetter, who has been a major donor to Reynolds and before that, had tremendous influence over her mentor, Governor Terry Branstad (see also here). Reynolds’ chief of staff Ketzner became a senior adviser to Chris Christie’s presidential campaign around the same time Rastetter endorsed the New Jersey governor.

Iowa Democrats do not have a declared 2018 candidate for secretary of agriculture yet. Northey narrowly defeated Denise O’Brien in his first statewide election, then won his second and third terms by comfortable majorities.

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Iowans shut out of Trump's cabinet, and Chuck Grassley's not happy

The less said about President Donald Trump’s divisive, angry, poorly-delivered inaugural address, the better.

Catching up on transition news of particular importance to Iowa, yesterday Trump’s team finally announced that former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue will lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Perdue had long been considered a front-runner for the last cabinet position to be filled, but Trump delayed the selection for weeks in an apparent scramble to find a Latino. (He is the first president since Jimmy Carter not to appoint any Latinos to a cabinet-level position.)

The only Iowans Trump has tapped for important jobs so far are Sam Clovis, who is heading the transition at USDA, future U.S. Ambassador to China Governor Terry Branstad, and Eric Branstad, in line to become White House liaison to the Commerce Department. (By some accounts, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Steven Colloton is on Trump’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Senator Chuck Grassley had expressed concern about the delay in choosing a secretary of agriculture and specifically about rumored efforts to find someone other than a white man for the job. He didn’t sound pleased about the Perdue appointment either.

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Bruce Rastetter not on Trump's short list for agriculture secretary?

Today the New York Times published short lists for every position in Donald Trump’s cabinet, “using information from the Trump transition team, lawmakers, lobbyists and Washington experts.” The leading names for secretary of agriculture are Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, Texas Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, and Chuck Conner, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Six Iowans were among more than 60 people on the “Agricultural Advisory Committee” Trump’s campaign announced in August. Governor Terry Branstad has never expressed interest in a federal government job. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey is widely expected to run for governor in 2018, unless Branstad seeks a seventh term. Sam Clovis is under consideration for deputy chief of staff for policy. Former State Representative Annette Sweeney, who leads a public policy group called Iowa Agri-Women, doesn’t have the stature for a cabinet position. The same goes for Ron Heck, a farmer and past president of the American Soybean Association.

Then there’s Bruce Rastetter, who made a fortune building factory farms and another fortune in the ethanol industry. Often described as a “kingmaker” despite the mixed results for candidates he has favored, Rastetter may soon need a new gig for throwing his weight around politically. His term on the Iowa Board of Regents, where he is nominally president but de facto the decider for the nine-member board, expires at the end of April 2017. Even after last week’s devastation, Democrats have enough votes in the Iowa Senate to block Rastetter’s confirmation, assuming Branstad renominates him to the governing board for the three state universities.

Trump is reportedly considering quite a few corporate executives for cabinet positions, so why isn’t Rastetter on the short list? He may be a casualty of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s declining influence in Trump’s inner circle. Rastetter has long been on good terms with Christie, but the governor was replaced as leader of Trump’s transition team soon after the election. (A source told Deadspin that “Trump had just picked Christie as transition chair nominally, as everyone had assumed the New Jersey governor would never actually have to do any work.”)

What will be Rastetter’s next political move if no federal job is forthcoming, and the Iowa Senate declines to confirm him to another term on the Board of Regents? Spin your own scenarios in this thread.

P.S.-Searches on the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s website indicate that Rastetter gave less money to Iowa Republican candidates and political committees during the 2016 cycle than he had during the previous several elections. His only five-figure gifts in 2015 or 2016 were $10,000 to Kim Reynolds for Lieutenant Governor, $25,000 to Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix’s committee, and several gifts totaling $40,000 to House Speaker Linda Upmeyer’s committee. That’s a significant drop from Rastetter’s large contributions to GOP candidates and committees during the 2014 and 2012 election cycles. He hasn’t given any money to Nick Ryan’s Team Iowa PAC since 2012, when his donations to that PAC alone totaled $120,000. The Team Iowa PAC ceased to be a major player in Iowa legislative races after the 2012 election. The American Future Fund 501(c)4 group, for which Rastetter provided “seed money” in 2007, spent less to influence federal elections in 2014 and 2016 than it had in 2012.

UPDATE: Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly behind the “purge” of Christie loyalists from Trump’s transition team. When Christie was a U.S. attorney, he put Kushner’s father in prison.

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Branstad, Rastetter, Northey join Donald Trump's Agricultural Advisory Committee

So much for an “unofficial” role: Governor Terry Branstad, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and Republican power-broker Bruce Rastetter are among more than 60 people named this morning to Donald Trump’s “Agricultural Advisory Committee.” Its “executive board members will convene on a regular basis,” according to a news release I’ve posted after the jump. Note that the campaign statement misspells Northey’s name and describes Rastetter as having hosted the “first Republican Presidential debate.” Actually, Rastetter organized an Iowa Ag Summit at which nine presidential contenders (not including Trump) appeared in March 2015. New Jersey journalist Claude Brodesser-Akner was the first to report Branstad’s and Rastetter’s involvement as Trump advisers last week.

The other Iowans on the list released today are:

• Sam Clovis, who traded in his conservative and religious principles last summer to become Trump’s “national chief policy advisor”;

• former State Representative Annette Sweeney, a friend of Rastetter’s since childhood who chaired the Iowa House Agriculture Committee until redistricting forced her into a losing primary battle against fellow House Republican Pat Grassley. She was a key player in passing Iowa’s unconstitutional “ag gag bill,” the first of its kind in the country. Soon after finishing her legislative service, Sweeney became president of a public policy group called Iowa Agri-Women.

• Ron Heck, identified as an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Soybean Association.

Any comments about the presidential race are welcome in this thread. Northey is widely expected to run for governor in 2018 rather than seek a fourth term as secretary of agriculture. His likely opponents in a GOP gubernatorial primary include Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. While the lieutenant governor has repeatedly urged Iowans to vote for Trump at public events, Corbett has wisely kept some distance between himself and the presidential nominee. He steered clear of Trump’s rally in Cedar Rapids on July 28.

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